William N. Oatis

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William N. Oatis
William Nathan Oatis 1953.jpg
Oatis in 1953
Born William Nathan Oatis
(1914-01-04)January 4, 1914
Marion, Indiana
Died September 16, 1997(1997-09-16) (aged 83)
Brooklyn, New York
Nationality USA
Occupation Associated Press bureau chief in Prague
Notable credit(s) George Polk Award (1952)
President, UN Correspondents Association, (1970)
Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame (1992)
Spouse(s) Laurabelle Zack Oatis
Children Jonathan Oatis, Jeremy Oatis

William Nathan Oatis (January 4, 1914 – September 16, 1997) was an American journalist who gained international attention when he was charged with espionage by the Czechoslovak government in 1951. He was subsequently jailed until 1953.

Early life

Born in Marion, Indiana, Oatis began his journalism career with his high school newspaper, studied at DePauw University for one year and in 1933 returned to Marion, where he worked for the Leader-Tribune.1 In 1937, he started working for the Associated Press in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Oatis served in the U.S Army during World War II, studying Japanese at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. In 1950, he married Laurabelle Zack, who worked in the AP's reference library in New York.2 The marriage took place in London.3

Arrest and detention

Oatis was working as the AP bureau chief in Prague, Czechoslovakia when he was arrested on April 23, 1951. Deprived of sleep and subjected to continuous interrogation for 42 hours, Oatis signed a statement confessing to the charge of espionage.4 The case made international headlines, as well as leading to trade and travel embargos against Czechoslovakia.5 On July 4, 1951, a Czechoslovak court sentenced Oatis to ten years in prison.6 He was released May 16, 1953, shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin and after an angry letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Czechoslovak government.7 The Czechoslovak government said it had been moved to pardon Oatis by a poignant plea from Oatis' wife, Laurabelle.7 A Czechoslovak court cleared him of all charges in 1959, but the decision was reversed in 1968 after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1990, after Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" the previous year, he was cleared again.8

External images
William Oatis steps off plane with his wife Laurabelle in New York after his release in 1953. Life photo by Yale Joel.
William and Laurabelle Oatis meet reporters in New York after his release in 1953. Life photo by Yale Joel.
William Oatis interviewing Audrey Hepburn, 1953.
William Oatis at the United Nations.

The Voice of America called Oatis "the first American martyr to press freedom behind the Iron Curtain." 8 The United States Department of State denounced the Czechoslovak verdict as a ludicrous travesty and the U.S. press said Oatis was condemned for no more than doing his job as a reporter. The case's Orwellian overtones were highlighted by the prosecution's assertion at the show trial that Oatis, a careful reporter, was "particularly dangerous because of his discretion and insistence on obtaining only accurate, correct, verified information." 1 Oatis contracted tuberculosis during his imprisonment and sought treatment shortly after his release.9

Later career

Oatis went on to cover the United Nations for three decades and retired in 1984 after a 47-year career at the AP. He was elected president of the United Nations Correspondents Association in 1970.10 In 1992, Oatis was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.11

Oatis died September 16, 1997 at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, New York from complications of Alzheimer's disease.12 He was survived by his sons Jonathan and Jeremy. His wife Laurabelle died of natural causes on June 19, 2012, at the age of 88.

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Rayner Pike, "AP Reporter William Oatis Dies," Associated Press obituary, September 16, 1997.
  2. ^ Laurabelle Oatis. Larry T. Nix, Library History Buff Blog, February 1, 2009. (Accessed July 28, 2011.)
  3. ^ England & Wales, Marriage Index: 1916-2005, v. 5c, p. 2419. Ancestry.com. England & Wales, Marriage Index: 1916-2005 (database on-line). Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010. Original data: General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes. London, England: General Register Office. © Crown copyright. Published by permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Office for National Statistics.
  4. ^ William N. Oatis, "Why I Confessed," Life, September 21, 1953, p. 131; p. 141.
  5. ^ A petition for a "United Nations Writ of Habeas Corpus" was even filed with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Oatis by attorney Luis Kutner. Luis Kutner, World Habeas Corpus, Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana, 1962, p. 244.
  6. ^ "Czechs Give Oatis 10 Years, Half Off for Good Behavior," New York Times, July 5, 1951, page 1.
  7. ^ a b "The Press: A Letter from Ike," Time, June 1, 1953.
  8. ^ a b Pace, Eric (September 17, 1997). "William N. Oatis, 83, of A.P.; Jailed by Prague in Cold War" (obituary), The New York Times.
  9. ^ "Oatis to be Treated in Sanitarium for TB," New York Times, May 27, 1953.
  10. ^ List of Past Presidents, UN Correspondents Association (Accessed August 1, 2011).
  11. ^ William N. Oatis profile, Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
  12. ^ Eulogy by Jeremy Oatis. (Accessed July 29, 2011)

Further reading

  • Edward Alwood, "The Spy Case of AP Correspondent William Oatis: A Muddled Victim/Hero Myth of the Cold War," Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, vol. 87, No. 2 (Summer 2010) pp. 263–280.
  • William N. Oatis, "Why I Confessed," Life, September 21, 1953, p. 131.
  • (Slovak) Slavomír Michálek: Prípad Oatis. Československý komunistický režim verzus dopisovateľ Associated Press. (Case Oatis. Czechoslovak communist regime versus Associated Press correspondent.), Bratislava, ÚPN, 2005, 293 pages, ISBN 80-224-0565-5.

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